Voyage to an Unexplored Planet and a New Realm
The New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.
Science Payload • Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps. • Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). • REX (Radio Science EXperiment): Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer. • LORRI (LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager): Telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s far side and provides high resolution geologic data. • SWAP (Solar Wind Around Pluto): Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind. • PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation): Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere. • VBSDC (Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter): Built and operated by students at University of Colorado; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system
New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and will conduct a five-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015. Pluto closest approach is scheduled for July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine one or two of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.
Sending a spacecraft on this long journey will help us answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.
The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – including Pluto – of the highest priority for solar system exploration. Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).
Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs.” They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.
Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.
A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons also will explore – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.
The Need to Explore
The United States has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. If New Horizons is successful, it will allow the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.
A Team Approach
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado is the principal investigator. SwRI is responsible for science payload operations, data reduction and archiving, and participates in the science team.
The mission team also includes KinetX, Inc. (navigation team), Ball Aerospace Corporation, the Boeing Company, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Stanford University, Lockheed Martin Corporation, University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Energy and a number of other firms, NASA centers and university partners.
NASA’s New Horizons mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA’s New Horizons Discovers Frozen Plains in the Heart of Pluto’s ‘Heart’
In the latest data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, a new close-up image of Pluto reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.
“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”
This fascinating icy plains region — resembling frozen mud cracks on Earth — has been informally named “Sputnik Planum” (Sputnik Plain) after the Earth’s first artificial satellite. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs. Some of these troughs have darker material within them, while others are traced by clumps of hills that appear to rise above the surrounding terrain. Elsewhere, the surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by a process called sublimation, in which ice turns directly from solid to gas, just as dry ice does on Earth.
Scientists have two working theories as to how these segments were formed. The irregular shapes may be the result of the contraction of surface materials, similar to what happens when mud dries. Alternatively, they may be a product of convection, similar to wax rising in a lava lamp. On Pluto, convection would occur within a surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen, driven by the scant warmth of Pluto’s interior.
Pluto’s icy plains also display dark streaks that are a few miles long. These streaks appear to be aligned in the same direction and may have been produced by winds blowing across the frozen surface.
The Tuesday “heart of the heart” image was taken when New Horizons was 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from Pluto, and shows features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across. Mission scientists will learn more about these mysterious terrains from higher-resolution and stereo images that New Horizons will pull from its digital recorders and send back to Earth during the next year.
The New Horizons Atmospheres team observed Pluto’s atmosphere as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above the surface, demonstrating that Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere is quite extended. This is the first observation of Pluto’s atmosphere at altitudes higher than 170 miles above the surface (270 kilometers).
The New Horizons Particles and Plasma team has discovered a region of cold, dense ionized gas tens of thousands of miles beyond Pluto — the planet’s atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind and lost to space.
“This is just a first tantalizing look at Pluto’s plasma environment,” said New Horizons co-investigator Fran Bagenal, University of Colorado, Boulder.
“With the flyby in the rearview mirror, a decade-long journey to Pluto is over — but, the science payoff is only beginning,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Data from New Horizons will continue to fuel discovery for years to come.
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado, added, “We’ve only scratched the surface of our Pluto exploration, but it already seems clear to me that in the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, the best was saved for last.”
New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the mission, science team, payload operations and encounter science planning.
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